How to Craft the Perfect College Application Essay
By Emma Sarran Webster
October 13, 2016
10 tips from college admissions experts on how to write the best college application essay.
The school year may have started only a couple months ago, but college application season is in full swing. If you’re planning to apply to college this year, now is the time to start narrowing down your choices and diving into those applications. Sure, your transcript, resume, and grades are all big parts of your applications, and show the hard work you’ve put in over the past few years. But, the essay portion of the application is also a key part of presenting yourself as a compelling candidate, so it’s important to put in the hard work now to make it the best you can. “Your essay reveals something important about you that your grades and test scores cannot: your personality,” Andrew Elwell, director of student communications at the College Board tells Teen Vogue. “Colleges want to hear about what’s important to you and how your experiences have shaped you as an individual.” It’s a daunting task, but one you can accomplish if you take your time, and put in the work. To help you along, we got 10 tips from experts that’ll help you craft your admission-winning essay.
Remember there is no one right way to write an essay.
College application essays are not formulaic. There’s no “intro, three paragraphs, conclusion” template to follow. And there’s no one way to go with the content, or the stories, you share. “There is a perception that students have to have a hardship story in order for their essays to be compelling, when really there is no one thing that is compelling, or any 10 or 20 things,” Dr. Kat Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise, says. “What is compelling is showing the reader who you are and showcasing your writing abilities, no matter the topic.” So, before you even start writing, make sure you erase any mindset of what your essay should say or should look like, and go into it with the plan to make it your own.
When it comes to personal essays, first impressions certainly count. You want to captivate the readers with your very first sentence. “Admissions counselors have to read a ton of essays and catching their eye with a good impression up front can be just as valuable as having great content in the body of your essay,” says Vinay Bhaskara, co-founder of CollegeVine. He suggests opening your essay with dialogue, an interesting story, or a shocking statement. Just make sure it’s true and appropriate!
Make it personal.
“The admissions essay is one of the only opportunities you have to speak to admissions in your own voice,” Stacey Brook, founder and chief advisor of College Essay Advisors, tells us. “So express yourself authentically.” Rather than try to right in some contrived, super-formal tone, crafting sentences peppered with fancy words you found on Thesaurus.com, Brook says to keep your writing conversational, while remaining polished. “Remember, the college essay is not an academic assignment and the writing style you use should be less formal than it would be in a research paper or persuasive essay,” she says.
And that goes for the content of the essay, too: It should be personal, and about you. You don’t have to reveal your deepest, darkest secrets, but go beyond surface level and share something that will give the admissions team an idea of who you really are. “One of the biggest mistakes students will make is that they try to write an essay that isn’t really about them,” Bhaskara says. “They might write an essay about an academic topic that thrills them or a person [who] influenced them. Those are themes that you can explore in the essay, but ultimately it has to be about you — about your own personality traits and feelings and motivations.” That doesn’t mean you can’t write about your relationship, or an experience, with someone else; just be sure to keep the ultimate focus on you.
Yes, applying to colleges is a serious endeavor. But that doesn’t mean you have to be super stiff and buttoned up in your essay. In fact, it’s better if you’re not. “Showing your creativity will not only help the readers learn more about you, but will also demonstrate how you think,” Elwell says. “That will help admission officers get a sense for your personality and how much of an asset you would be to their college or university.”
How you actually go about showing your creativity can vary. Ultimately, the most important thing is that your essay reflects your own personality. But, Brook notes, “branding yourself” is a great way to stand out. Think about what you can include in your essay that will stick in the admissions officers’ minds. “Is there a key detail or hook worth latching onto?” Brook asks. “What about the way you present yourself will burn itself into an admissions officer’s brain so that when it comes down to you and another similarly qualified candidate, he or she will hold up your application and say, ‘Take her!’ If a reader can summarize your essay in a single sentence or punchy description (‘The Ornithology Girl!’), you’ve probably set yourself up to make a lasting mark.”
And don’t be afraid to entertain, whether with humor or really interesting stories. Remember: the members of the admissions team reviewing your essay are human, and most humans enjoy being entertained. “The vast majority of the essays that land on an admissions officer’s desk are stone-cold boring,” Brook says. “No matter what your subject, your essay should aim to break through this fog and shine a bright light in the face of a fatigued admissions reader.”
Provide new information.
There’s no point in using your essay to simply regurgitate the information on your transcript or resume. Rather, use this opportunity to share another side of yourself, something the admissions officers won’t learn from looking at the rest of your application. “Consider this: What does the college know about you? What else would you like them to know? Think traits and characteristics, not accomplishments,” Kim Lifton, co-author of [How to Write an Effective College Application Essay], says. “Are you funny? Are you studious? Are you resourceful? You get to pick what you want them to know.”
Your essay can provide depth to your character that will make you a more memorable and more compelling candidate. “There is only so much that an application reader can deduce from a list of extracurricular activities, transcript, test scores, recommendation letters, and other application materials,” Cohen says. “Often, the best way to get a clear picture of a student’s goals, accomplishments, and character is to hear it directly from the student.”
Explain poor performance.
On the other side of the coin, if there is something on your transcript or resume that doesn’t look so great, this is your chance to provide some context. Don’t make your entire essay about one or two bad grades, but don’t be afraid to explain them if you can. “I once had a student who all but failed 10th grade, but had straight As every other year,” Sarah Seitz, founder of The Enrichery, says. “In her essay, she wrote about how her mother died of cancer when she was in 10th grade, and about how she suddenly became responsible for taking care of her younger siblings, as well as many other household chores. Not everyone will have such an airtight alibi, but either way, it’s important to give a brief explanation, and then spend most of your time focusing on all the things you did to solve the problem, the lessons you learned, or how you plan to handle stressful situations differently next time.”
This goes for any essay that asks you to share why exactly you want to attend that school. Don’t write one blanket essay and simply swap different school names in and out before you hit send. Make it clear you really care about the specific school you’re applying to. “It’s not enough to say, ‘I want to go to XX University because it’s a great school,’” Cohen says. “Colleges want to know that a student has done his or her homework on the institution and has thought about how he or she will fit into the campus community…Mention specific courses and/or professors of interest…Elaborate on campus organizations or programs that fit certain goals, and certain aspects of the campus community that make it a good social and academic fit. Admissions officers should be able to clearly see where a student might fit into the fabric of the community based on their answer to this question.”
Chances are, most schools you’re applying to aren’t asking you for a 2,000-word essay, which means you have to narrow down the focus of your content. “One of the biggest mistakes applicants make is trying to fit too much into a 500-to-750 word essay,” Seitz says. “It’s not enough time to tell your whole life’s story, so the best thing to do is put a lot of thought into finding one specific topic you feel passionately about. Your essay should drive home one central point, so be sure to edit out anything that isn’t relevant to that point. If you try to tell an admissions officer everything, you’ll end up telling them nothing.”
After you spend so much time and energy writing your essay and telling your story, don’t slack off at the very end. Take that extra time to proofread when you’re done writing. “Students work so hard on their essays and applications, but admissions officers notice if you are using the wrong form of ‘their/there/they’re’ or if you are misusing punctuation,” Cohen says. “Don’t let that be the thing that hurts your chances of admission. After you’ve completed your essays, take a break and review it all over again with fresh eyes. Let your counselor at school or independent counselor do the same, and then [review] it again [yourself]. Thoroughness is important.”
Stop trying to write the perfect essay.
That said, be careful not to over-edit. “There comes a point when an essay has reached peak admissions-readiness, and continuing to tinker with your words beyond that juncture begins to interfere with your natural voice, giving your writing an overworked or flavorless feel,” Brook says. “Once you believe your essay is finished, put it away and look at it one or two more times, tops; then try not to touch it again. After all that hard work you put in, you don’t want to second-guess the personality out of your essay.”